The Theory and Research Cycle
The relationship between theory and research has been referred to as a continuous cycle. (Wallace. 1971). You will recall that a theory is a set logically interrelated statements that attempts to describe. explain, and (occasionally) predict social events. A theory attempts to explain why something is the way it is. Research is the process of systematically collecting information (or the purpose of testing an existing theory or generating a new one. The theory and research cycle consists of deductive and inductive approaches. In the deductive approach, the researcher begins with a theory and uses research to test the theory. This approach proceeds as follows: (1) theories generate hypotheses, (2) hypotheses lead to 'observations (data gathering), (3) observations lead to the formation of generalizations, and (4) generalizations are used to support the theory, 10 suggest modifications to it, or to refute it To illustrate, if we use the deductive method to determine why people commit suicide, we start by formulating a theory about the "causes" of suicide and then test our theory by collecting and analyzing data (for example, vital statistics on suicides or surveys to determine whether adult church members view suicide differently from nonmembers). Tnthe inductive approach, the researcher collects information or data (facts or evidence) and then generates theories from the analysis of that data. Under the inductive approach, we would proceed as follows: (1) specific observations suggest generalizations. (2) generalizations produce a tentative theory. (3) the theory is tested through the formation of hypotheses. and (4) hypotheses may provide suggestions for additional observations. Using the inductive approach to study suicide. we might start by simultaneously collecting and analyzing data related to suicidal behavior and then generate a theory (see Glaser and Strauss. 1 967; Reinharz, 1992). Researchers may break into the cycle at different points depending on what they want to know and what information is available. Theory gives meaning to research; research helps support theory. For example, data collected from interviews with 25 women aged 15 to 24 who recently attempted suicide will 1I0t give us an explanation of why women are more likely than men to attempt to take their own lives. Similarly, theories unsupported by data are meaningless. Suppose. for instance. that we made the following assertions: Women are more likely to attempt suicide because of problems in their personal relationships. whereas men.are more likely to be suicidal when they have ecologic difficulties are unemployed. or experience a severe physical illness (Canetto, 1992). Our assertions are unsupported because we have not tested their validity. Research helps us question such assumptions about suicide and other social concerns. Sociologists suggest that a healthy skepticism (a feature of science) is important in research because it keep. us open to the possibility of alternative explanations. Some degree of skepticism is built into each step of the research process. With that in mind. let's explore the steps in the sociological research process.